NCF Nation: Jonny Miller

It's hard to win in college football without a good, experienced quarterback. So perhaps it should have been no surprise that several Big East teams struggled on offense at times in 2010.

Remember last offseason, when we talked about how South Florida's B.J. Daniels and Rutgers' Tom Savage were the most experienced league quarterbacks in terms of starts despite coming off their freshman seasons? Even that wasn't a great indicator of success, as Daniels had to adjust to a new system and Savage got hurt, benched and eventually decided to transfer.

The good news for the Big East is that there will be many more experienced signal-callers ready to open the 2011 season. First, let's take a look at which quarterbacks will have the most career starts under their belts when next season rolls around:

[+] EnlargeZach Collaros
Frank Victores/US PresswireZach Collaros should be Cincinnati's starter in the fall.
1. Daniels, South Florida, junior: 22 career starts

2. Zach Collaros, Cincinnati, senior: 15

T-3. Ryan Nassib, Syracuse, junior: 13

T-3. Geno Smith, West Virginia, junior: 13

T-3. Tino Sunseri, Pittsburgh, junior: 13

6. Chas Dodd, Rutgers, sophomore: 8

7. Will Stein, Louisville, senior: 2

8. Michael Box, Connecticut, sophomore: 1

Daniels will be the graybeard as a third-year starter, but Collaros, Nassib and Smith all saw significant time in the 2009 season. Smith, Sunseri, Dodd and whoever Connecticut's starting quarterback is will all be playing for a new offensive coordinator this season.

Now let's look at the likelihood of potential quarterback battles this spring at each school:

Cincinnati -- Chance of competition: slim to none. Collaros is the established guy and a great leader who shouldn't have to worry about job security.

Connecticut -- Chance of competition: high. Box made only one start and it was a disastrous one against Louisville. With new coach Paul Pasqualoni coming in, recruit Michael Nebrich enrolled and several other candidates on the roster, this one looks wide open.

Louisville -- Chance of competition: guaranteed. Stein, a former walk-on who's under 5-foot-10, has a ton of moxie. But he'll have to hold off highly-touted early enrollee Teddy Bridgewater for the gig.

Pittsburgh -- Chance of competition: medium to high. Sunseri started every game last year and improved during the season, but new coach Todd Graham brings an entirely new offensive system. Don't be surprised if redshirt freshmen Mark Myers and Anthony Gonzalez get a serious look this spring.

Rutgers -- Chance of competition: slim. At least for the spring, Dodd should be safe. His only real competition will come from a pair of incoming freshmen this summer.

South Florida -- Chance of competition: good. Daniels may have more starts than anybody, but Skip Holtz is at least going to let Bobby Eveld push him in the spring. And don't forget about redshirt freshman Jamius Gunsby.

Syracuse -- Chance of competition: possible. Nassib started every game in 2010 and had an excellent bowl performance. But Syracuse has a lot of quarterbacks on the roster, including once-hyped recruit Jonny Miller. Nassib has the definite edge but can't get complacent.

West Virginia -- Chance of competition: tiny. Smith is the man in Morgantown, and his two freshman backups in 2010 transferred. The only concern is his foot injury that may hold him out of spring practice drills as Dana Holgorsen installs his new offense. But only a monumental upset or further injury would prevent Smith from starting the opener in 2011.
Ryan Nassib takes a philosophical view of what spring position battles really mean.

"Spring is when you earn your job, and the fall is when you win," he says. "Nothing really matters until you've got a place at the table at the beginning of the first game."

Nassib learned that lesson firsthand last year. Early on in the spring, he was named Syracuse's starting quarterback even though he was just a redshirt freshman with no experience. After spring ball ended, however, Greg Paulus transferred in from Duke and was named the starter during fall camp. Nassib did nothing to lose the job, really, but Paulus was the veteran, even if he hadn't played football in four years.

But Nassib didn't just ride the pine. He played in 10 games and got plenty of snaps as the Orange began to groom him for the future. He also came in on special packages, sometimes lining up at receiver. Against West Virginia, after Paulus struggled, he completed 7 of 16 passes for 120 yards and two scores.

"I didn't have the typical role of a second-string quarterback," Nassib said. "I got a chance to get in and experience real-life game time. I had some success and some failures. I learned a lot from it."

He completed 52.9 percent of his throws for 422 yards and three touchdowns, plus an interception. Coach Doug Marrone said Nassib learned simply by watching Paulus go about his preparations.

"He was great to look up to," Nassib said. "He was a veteran college athlete. He taught me some great things, not only on the field but in locker room with the team and how to handle yourself."

Nassib entered this spring with the upper hand on the quarterback job, but Marrone hasn't anointed him the starter. Freshman Charley Loeb is pushing him in practice, and highly-regarded recruit Jonny Miller will arrive this summer. Nassib knows that nothing is certain.

But he's in a much better frame of mind this spring than he was this time a year ago.

"I have a better understanding of what college football is and what it takes to compete at this level," he said. "Last spring, I was like a freshman, not knowing much. Now that I've got a whole year under my belt and have experienced a lot of things, I feel a lot more confident out on the field."

Nassib hopes he's on the field as the starter come September. He's not taking anything for granted this time around, though.
Spring football in the Big East kicks off March 16. Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each program heading into the spring:

Spring practice starts: March 17
Spring game: April 24
What to watch:

  • Building depth: New coach Butch Jones said this is the biggest key for the spring. The Bearcats have a lot of top-flight players with starting experience back, like Zach Collaros, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead and JK Schaffer. But there's a lot of youth and inexperience in potential backup roles, especially at positions like offensive line, linebacker and receiver. All slates are clean with the new coaching staff, and the spring will be a time when new names can emerge in key roles.
  • Defensive line retooling: Jones will switch back to the 4-3 after a year in the 3-4 scheme. Both starting defensive ends from last year are gone, but the smallish line was overpowered at times near the end of the season anyway. Derek Wolfe should be a fixture inside, Dan Giordano, Brandon Mills and John Hughes step into more prominent roles. Jones will have to decide whether to make Walter Stewart a defensive end or keep him at outside linebacker. The Bearcats could use a little more strength and bulk up front against the bigger Big East offensive lines.
  • Vidal's arrival: USC transfer Vidal Hazelton is eligible after sitting out last year. He reputedly dominated practices last season, and now he'll get to go full time with the first string. A lot of people will be watching closely to see how he and Collaros connect during the spring. A big year by Hazelton will lessen the loss of star wideout Mardy Gilyard and could keep Cincinnati as the Big East's best offense.
Spring practice starts: March 16
Spring game: April 17
What to watch:

  • Secondary matters: UConn returns a truckload of starters and looks rock solid in most areas. But the defensive backfield will be an area of emphasis starting in the spring. Gone are stalwarts Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn from a secondary that got picked apart much of the season by opposing passing games. Dwayne Gratz and Blidi Wreh-Wilson showed progress by the end of their redshirt freshmen seasons and should be the starting corners. The Huskies need someone to replace Vaughn at safety and overall better performance from the unit.
  • Frazer vs. Endres: Zach Frazer and Cody Endres have been splitting starts since the second half of the 2008 season at quarterback. Endres took over early last year and played well until he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. Frazer picked things up late after a slow start. The competition should be back on this spring, with Frazer probably holding the edge given his late-season improvement.
  • Catch as catch can: Receiver was a major question for UConn going into last spring, when walk-on senior Marcus Easley surprised everybody with his giant leap forward. He became the go-to guy in 2009, but now he's gone, along with starter Brad Kanuch. So the Huskies are basically back in the same position as this time a year ago, needing to find some reliable pass catchers. Kashif Moore may be the next to break out after some good, late-year performances. And perhaps former highly-touted recruit Dwayne Difton will emerge. UConn hopes to catch lightning in a bottle again like it did with Easley.
Spring practice starts: March 24
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:

  • Switching to Strong: The Cardinals will have their first practices under new coach Charlie Strong, who promises to bring a much different style than former coach Steve Kragthorpe. Strong is known as being an intense guy on the field, and as a former top-flight defensive coordinator, he will likely be particularly demanding of players on that side of the ball. There will be new terminology to learn, new assistants and new standards to which the Cardinals must adjust in a hurry.
  • The quarterback shuffle: Louisville had three quarterbacks -- Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein -- start games last year. All three will be given the chance to win the job in the spring, and mid-year enrollee Luke Woodley might see some snaps as well. Don't be surprised if this competition goes into the fall and if other newcomers like Dominique Brown get a look. Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford wants to run a Florida-style spread offense, which might favor the more mobile Froman if he chooses to go with a veteran under center.
  • Line play: The trenches have not been a particularly strong suit for Louisville the past couple of seasons, one of the reasons why the program has fallen out of annual postseason play. The Cardinals have gotten very little pass rush from the defensive line and not enough of a consistent push from the offensive line. Strong asked the offensive linemen to rework their bodies to prepare for the spread, and he'll need replacements for two senior defensive tackles. Junior-college imports Randy Salmon and Tyler Harrell will have a chance to impress on the defensive line. If the holdovers don't step up, we could see more newcomers in key spots by the summer.

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Syracuse recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
Analyzing the 2010 Big East signing classes ...


View class here.

Signees: 31

Heavy on: Linebackers (six), receivers (five)

Geographic trend: New York, Pennsylvania and Florida are heavily represented.

Headliners: QB Jonny Miller (three stars); CB Jeremi Wilkes (three stars).

Sleeper: Take your pick: 16 players earned only two stars or lower.

Best potential for immediate impact: Don't be surprised if Miller makes a serious run for the starting quarterback job as a true freshman.

Needs met: Syracuse needed bodies to fill out the roster and got that with a huge class, seven of whom enrolled in January and will count against last year's class. The Orange also needed playmakers at wideout and more linebackers, and those positions made up a large chunk of this otherwise balanced and diverse group.

Analysis: There aren't a lot of showstopper names in this bunch, but second-year coach Doug Marrone is still working to get Syracuse back in the forefront of recruits' minds. What he has done is get the program back to its traditional recruiting roots in New York, Florida and elsewhere. And he's now got a lot of players to work with, unlike his first season. It's up to Marrone to develop these guys and prove the recruiting rankings wrong.

What Marrone said: “The one thing that I can say about this class as a general topic is that everyone in this class can run. Everyone who is involved with football knows that you have to bring players in who can run. That's an important part of what we're doing here to develop our football team. ... We're starting with players who already have a good frame on them who will keep developing and maturing their body. ... Linebacker, wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, defensive back -- they are areas that we're looking to fulfill. The only area that our numbers are not ideal would be at the corner position."

Scouts Inc. grade: C-minus